Keri Russell, JJ Field, and Brett McKenzie star as the players in a latter-day Regency novel come to life on the 21st century screen, in Jerusha Hess’ adaptation of Shannon Hale’s novel "Austenland."
Russell’s character, suitably named Jane, is a huge fan of the 19th century English writer Jane Austen, whose observations of love in the highly mannered milieu of the English nobility has made her a favorite writer among those with literary taste, romantic dispositions, or both. In the case of Russell’s Jane Hayes, it’s less Austen who is the object of her fascination than the magnetic male at the heart of one of Austen’s greatest novels, "Pride and Prejudice," a dour-seeming fellow named Mr. Darcy.
In hopes of one day finding a man like Darcy -- instead of the ill-mannered cads that beleaguer her -- Jane signs up for an "immersive experience," a week at an English manor called Austenland, where she can lose herself for a while in the world of her dreams.
Not everything is as romantic as Jane hopes: Despite forking over all the money she can scrape up, including all of her savings, she can only afford the "Basic Copper package," which leaves her clad in dreary garments and playing the role of the orphaned, penniless cousin. It also means she’s left out of some of the activities that the other guests have paid for as part of their exclusive Platinum packages -- but this, as it happens, is the reason she’s able to spend so much time hanging around with a stable hand named Martin (McKenzie), who provides her with down-home distractions (the birth of a colt, a boat ride on the river) and forbidden modern pleasures like a CD player (strictly forbidden at the pain of being kicked out of the manor and forfeiting the remaining days).
Luckily, another American guest, Elizabeth Charming (broadly played with a certain rough-edged gusto by Jennifer Coolidge) comes to Jane’s rescue, dressing her up in borrowed gowns; another guest, Lady Amelia Heartwright (Georgia King), runs interference for her when the crabbed proprietress, Mrs. Wattlesbrook (Jane Seymour), gives her trouble.
The whole point of the trip is the men, however, and the actors in Mrs. Wattlesbrook’s employ are a handsome bunch -- none more so than Henry Nobley (Field), whose demeanor at first seems frigid and dismissive, not unlike that of Mr. Darcy. Over time, and with a few plot twists right out of Austen’s novel, Nobley seems to warm up to Jane. But is it anything more than an act?
As a comedy, the film offers some amusing turns and touches; as a meditation on the pitfalls of romantic fantasy, it has little of note to offer, especially since this is, in some respects, less a film set in a re-creation of Austen’s books than a modern riff on the books themselves. Complications, disappointments, discoveries, and happy endings are all part of this package. Catch a matinee, and you won’t, like Jane, have to hock your Tercel to enjoy this movie’s light, lace, and frothy charms.